A voice for the evidence of the refugee crisis

Mia Neafcy and Sai Parepalli explore the links between art and awareness

Photo credit: Katherine Sayer

“It’s the usual suspects that attend these things”, observes Julia Katarina, an accomplished musician and founder of Music for Refugees, having just succeeded in leaving us on the edge of our seats after a consummately beautiful rendition of a refugee Syrian love song. Christ Church’s one-off exhibition, Art and Awareness: A Showcase in Solidarity with Refugees on 12 May, which saw a score of varied and talented performers and artists take to the stage in solidarity with refugees, hoped to tackle a sense of the desensitisation and numbness towards humanitarian crises that is so prevalent today.

It is a sobering thought that, out of the world’s official count of 21.3 million refugees not only are over half of them are under the age of 18, but more embarrassingly, among the areas in the world that host the world’s displaced, Europe hosts but six per cent of them. We ourselves cough to the fact that, prior to this exhibition, this harrowing statistic had neither come to our attention nor been within our contemplation, reinforcing the main premise of Julia’s concern: the veritable lack of awareness as to the extent of the refugee crisis, and a pressing need to use the medium of art as a conduit to inspire awareness, urgency and action.

Commencing the showcase with poetry and spoken word was Aleppo-born Smir Darwish, who sought refuge in the UK as an asylum seeker in the Second Gulf War. His poem comprised a response to what he described as the most divisive of questions universally faced by refugees and asylum seekers upon entry at their final destination: where do you come from? The answer to this question, he tells us, dictates the success of a refugee’s struggles, sacrifices and sorrow—a ‘wrong’ answer diminishing these efforts to an exercise of futility, cancelling out the pain and effort endured by mere virtue of their birthplace—a simple geographical accident.

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The voice afforded to Amir and the collective message he transmitted through his poetry—of the ‘bullet-wounded’, of ‘hungry stomachs’, of ‘single mothers’—elevated his role as one tantamount to a spokesperson for the silenced and the suppressed.

Another contribution derived from the photography of Gideon Mendel, whose prolific works have spanned decades and delved into issues such as apartheid and climate change, but more recently the refugee crisis. The nature of his address was twofold: first, it constituted an exhibition of his photography of the refugee crisis specific to the Calais Jungle, and second, his ruminations on the role of the artist.

One aspect of the exhibition was a series of photographs presenting his findings in the ‘art of collecting’—namely, a hotchpotch of objects discarded across the dismantled migrant camps that he acquired during his time spent there. The vestigial remains of a burnt shirt, the remnants of children’s clothing, a tally of used toothbrushes, a Sudanese sandal, and most poignantly, an array of filth-laden toys and story-books—minus their owners. The photograph of ostensible plant pots which, upon closer inspection, are tear gas canisters painted by children in the Jungle nursery, tells a story of the destruction of innocence. These artefacts of destitution, as Mendel told us, act “almost like evidence” of the suffering endured for the public to inform themselves with. Mendel’s unique style of photography in the Jungle, prior to his archaeological stint, lies in the idea of him giving the refugees use of the cameras, so that the point of view of the actual victims themselves could inhere in his work, rather than that of the comfortable photographer, giving the refugees an activity, a platform, and as he put it, a “space to find a photographic voice”.

His eventual transition in the Jungle from photographer to collector, he told us, lay in a confrontation about how there are “so many photographers, so many photographs made—the people resented it and you felt like the enemy”. The conflict of interest between the photographer having to make a living and the need for immediate humanitarian help, he opined, amounted to an almost “destructive force” behind the excess of photographers, when married with the complete lack of immigration lawyers in the Jungle, for instance. The art itself used rebelliously here, as a medium to convey the truth of the refugee crisis, and the discourse had between the artists and the audience attempted to distinguish a positive contributor from an officious bystander when cataloguing the horrors of a phenomenon such as that of the Jungle.